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Germany: Number of school dropouts is rising

February 18, 2024

Compared to other European countries, Germany has a particularly high number of young people without a school diploma or any vocational qualifications.

A schoolgirl sits on the floor looking thoughtful.
The number of young people dropping out of school without any qualifications has increased to 12% in GermanyImage: Uwe Umstätter/picture alliance / imageBROKER

In comparison to other European countries, Germany has long had a particularly high number of young people without a high school diploma or vocational training. Now it's becoming a real problem.

Anyone looking for a job in Germany should be able to find one pretty quickly: more than 1.7 million job vacancies were registered in fall 2023. The demand for skilled workers in 200 professions outstrips the number of applicants, with a desperate need for medical and nursing staff, construction and IT workers, professional drivers, teachers and many more.

In purely mathematical terms, this shortage should not exist. At the beginning of 2024, around 4.8 million people who are able to work received state unemployment benefits.

However, more than half of those have not completed vocational training. According to the Federal Employment Agency, their chances of finding a job are slim. Another striking figure is the 25% of long-term unemployed who do not have a school diploma of any kind.

Germany lags far behind

For years, international organizations such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) have been criticizing how little is being done in Germany to reduce the number of people without any qualifications.

The German education system has managed to get more young people through high school and university than in the past. However, there remains a consistently high number of people who cannot meet the minimum requirements set out by potential employers.

Every year, the European Statistical Office (Eurostat) collects data on how many young people between the ages of 18 and 24 in European countries do not finish school or vocational training. In 2022, the rate was 12.2%. Among the 27 EU countries, Germany ranked fourth — from the bottom.

The dropout statistics also include young people who complete the most basic level of mandatory schooling in Germany, which ends after the 10th year of schooling.

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In Germany, children learn together for four to six years before being allocated to different secondary schools based on their academic performance.

Education is the responsibility of the 16 federal states and as such the school systems differ from state to state.

There are school dropouts in every state —  in 2022 alone it was around 52,000 young people.

A high number of people of foreign descent among dropouts

A particular cause for concern is the fact that many dropouts are young people with a background of migration, according to a study by the Federal Institute for Population Research (BiB).

In 2013, there was no difference between those with and without a migration background.

In 2022, however, only 3% of 25-year-old German males and 2% of females without a migration background had no school diploma whatsoever. Among young people the same age with a migration background, that figure was 12% for men and 10% for women.

Education experts have long criticized the German school system for leaving too many young people by the wayside. In the latest Pisa test, which compares the reading, math and science skills of 15-year-olds internationally, German pupils achieved the lowest scores ever recorded .

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On the one hand, the drop in performance has been attributed to school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic. Much more important, however, is the inequality of educational outcomes that has persisted for years.

"In Germany, academic success is still dependent on social background," Anja Bensinger-Stolze, board member of the Education and Science Trade Union, told DW.

Those who "do not have a good learning environment at home" are particularly affected.

"The lack of lessons, insufficiently qualified staff and a lack of support systems means that their educational opportunities are becoming increasingly limited," said Bensinger-Stolze.

Lack of German language skills

The problems start at kindergarten age. One in five children between the ages of three and six now speaks no German in the home. In the states of Hesse, Berlin and Bremen, that figure is as high as a third.

This makes it all the more important for these children in particular to attend kindergarten. However, according to the German government's education report, only 81% of children with a migration background do so.

That's largely because there's a shortage of daycare places, currently around 350,000 across Germany. If the children do not speak enough German when they start school, they can fall behind right from the start. This can demotivate them.

What is needed is individual support and the use of social workers and educational specialists. But everything is in short supply, just like teachers. 

Increasing shortage of specialists in schools

There is currently a nationwide shortage of 14,000 additional teachers, and that number looks set to rise.

"The gap between the demand for teachers and the supply of teachers will grow to a good 56,000 full-time positions by 2035," said Bensinger-Stolze.

"Unfortunately, politicians have taken the situation too lightly for too long. Therefore, it's very difficult to alleviate or improve the situation in the short term."

A teacher helps a young schoolgirl to place building blocks on a table.
There is a nationwide shortage of teachers in Germany, with social workers and daycare places also in short supply Image: dpa /picture alliance

That is bad news for pupils who need a lot of support. After all, programs aimed at reducing the number of early school leavers are also under threat. In some federal states, for example, there is the "Productive Learning" project, which aims to catch young people who are at risk of failing after the eighth grade.

There are plenty of young people who struggle with interpreting poems and the finer points of trigonometry but have other practical talents and skills. The offer to work as interns in companies three days a week is aimed at them, in order to find a way into a suitable career. 

The head of the employment agency, Andrea Nahles, has now suggested starting career guidance at school as early as the fifth grade.

Regular work experience placements are to be compulsory in all types of schools in the hope people will be able to discover and nurture more vocational talents. From April 1, 2024, there will also be a statutory training guarantee, even for school dropouts.

This article was originally written in German.

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